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Media reform is paramount - but is the opposition willing?

Updated: Feb 8, 2023

Edited, 31 January 2023 In our last blog we asked you to sign our Open Letter to the BBC. We now recommend reading this related Byline Times article by Brian Cathcart. Byline Times is a modern news outlet that seeks that seeks to tell us “what the mainstream papers don’t say”, and follow the story wherever it goes, “without fear or favour”.

Brian Cathcart, Professor of Journalism at Kingston University
Brian Cathcart, Professor of Journalism at Kingston University, also the first Executive Director of the Hacked Off Campaign

Cathcart played a decisive role in founding the Hacked Off Campaign that emerged in response to the phone-hacking scandal. This broke into public consciousness with the revelations about the hacking of the deceased Milly Dowler’s phone in 2011, and subsequent revelations led to the humiliation of Rupert Murdoch and his entourage. However, this setback proved temporary. Rebecca Brooks was soon back working for News UK which later got a licence for a new TV channel. And in 2018, the Government reneged on part two of Justice Leveson's proposed reforms (Leveson II) for which Hacked Off had campaigned so hard, i.e. the investigation of criminality in newspaper companies and the police.

Brian Cathcart places the dire state of the news media at the heart of contemporary Britain’s malaise, saying that it is: “not just a symptom of our problems – it is a principal cause of them”. It has led us out of the European Union based on lies and helped deliver a sequence of catastrophic governments. It has assisted governments in destroying the NHS by stealth and, by pedaling the “scroungers” agenda, prevented us from getting a humane welfare system. It has caused our teachers to be underpaid and our education system to be creaking at the seams. It is thanks to it that “ministers can treat desperate refugees as criminals”, and that we have a tax system that enriches the rich. The effects can be seen in the state of British policies on climate change, policing, crime, justice, race, immigration, defence, drugs, poverty, unemployment, transport and more.

Regardless of where you stand on all these matters, you are likely to agree with Cathcart’s assertion that: “Rational, evidence-based public discussion is often impossible, as if we were all guests at a dinner party where one person insisted on shouting continuously through a megaphone”. He proposes five measures that, applied together, would make a dramatic difference. The first is to end party political influence over the BBC, while the others are: public investment (some funded by levies on big tech) in national, regional and local news; independent and effective press regulation; reform of the ownership of news media, and; the much-delayed implementation of Leveson II.

However, he goes on to point out the difficulty that opposition parties will encounter if they try to include these five measures in their election manifestos, saying that it would “undoubtedly lead to outrage and hysteria in the national press, the views of which are likely to be echoed in much of our weakened broadcast media, like the BBC”. He therefore challenges politicians currently in opposition to take a far-sighted approach, and face down “the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune” (my words and Shakespeare's), reasoning that whatever the opposition parties propose or don’t propose at the next election, “they are bound to face frenzied hostility from most of the press (again, meekly echoed in much broadcast reporting)”.

Patrick Howse joins the fray

Patrick Howes, journalist
Patrick Howes, journalist, for more information see

Patrick Howse is a former BBC journalist whose acute observations we have reported in previous blogs. In another Byline Times article, he notes the current publicity surrounding the appointment of Richard Sharp as Chairman, saying his closeness to Boris Johnson should have always been a barrier to his appointment. He further takes Laura Kuenssberg to task for giving insufficient coverage to this big story, to Jeremy Clarkson’s misogynistic tirade against Meghan Markle and to Nadhim Zahawi’s tax avoidance and untransparent dealings with HMRC. Howse sums up the BBC’s coverage of Zahawi’s affair saying that:

“The corporation seems to think that it is not its role to lead on stories like this. It is far happier reporting ‘he says this, she says that and probably the truth lies somewhere in between’ – even though this is a cowardly and logically untenable approach (the truth is not the midpoint between a fact and a lie)”.

He goes on to say that: “To survive, the BBC’s governance will have to be completely overhauled, so that never again can government stooges be installed to steer its output in favour of the ruling party. It also needs an adequate and secure level of funding, so that it is not continually looking over its shoulder and worrying that a hostile government might close it down or kill it with a thousand cuts. It will be a huge task and any new Labour government might simply have too much else to do”.

Pardon me, Messrs Cathcart and Howse, but are you missing something?

Do you think that the opposition parties are likely to adopt the bold and much-needed reforms you are proposing - even if they have the time? Given what is going on in the Labour Party, it sounds a bit naive.

We can only expect the Labour Party to support these reforms if we can count on: (a) the integrity of its leadership, and; (b) its willingness to stand up to major vested interests.

Many Labour Party members as well as non-members question the leadership’s integrity on the following grounds, among others:

  • Retrospective punishment: The introduction of this means that the party can introduce a new rule today and expel a member for having broken it two years ago. It looks like a pretext to expel opponents on factional grounds.

  • Suppression of free speech: The party has issued a list of topics which members are now not allowed to discuss and vote on in local Labour meetings. This includes members’ ability to express no-confidence in Keir Starmer.

  • Closing down democracy: Candidates selected by local members but of which the leadership disapproves have been removed on one pretext or another. This includes targeted retrospective punishment, and regions overriding local democracy by arbitrarily taking control of the selection process.

  • Bullying: A good example is the treatment of Jewish Voice for Labour, an organisation for non-Zionist Jews, where most of the executive have been subject to disciplinary action. There are many other examples showing ordinary members being treated with contempt, such as those highlighted in the Al Jazeera Labour Files documentary series .

  • Bearing false witness: The party has propagated misleading information and outright lies about Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters, also highlighted in the Labour Files.

One might expect this of a dictatorship that enjoys absolute power. The reason the party leadership enjoys this power is that it is not being held to account by the media, notably the BBC which, unlike the Mail or the Murdoch titles, has a public service function. The media could tear Starmer and co to pieces but remains almost entirely silent because, for them, outrage is selective. If by some miracle, a new media consensus emerged that the antisemitism-in-Labour narrative was a scam, Keir Starmer's career would be finished.

Hence, we may reasonably infer that Labour leadership owes too much to the mainstream media to engage seriously in reforming it. Above all, the media has given Labour HQ a free pass to purge and defame Starmer’s left-wing rivals within the Party. It has provided minimal coverage to the Forde Report and the Al Jazeera Labour Files documentaries, where they provided detailed coverage of factional and unethical conduct towards Corbyn supporters. The media does not dwell on the huge numbers of members who have left the Labour party in disgust, the damaged state of the party’s finances arising from this and the leadership’s allegedly factional use of party funds in legal cases, or the two year delay in the release of the findings of the Forde Report.

The most surreal part of the leadership's conduct is its treatment of 60-odd people whose main offence is being “the wrong kind of Jew”, i.e. those that oppose Starmer’s unqualified support for Zionism. As pointed out in "the Crisis" episode of the Labour Files (at 69 minutes), Jewish members of the Labour Party are 6.3 times as likely to be investigated for antisemitism as are non-Jewish members. This letter from Bindmans law firm explains that the same Labour Party has recruited a former Israeli spy to a post that involves monitoring the social media accounts of its members. Such behaviour suggests that the Labour leadership may be in hock to a foreign power that seeks to clamp down freedom of expression in this country.

Daisy Cooper, MP for St Albans
Daisy Cooper, Lib Dem MP for St Albans, formerly joint Executive Director (with Evan Harris) of the Hacked Off Campaign

The Liberal Democrats have a record of supporting Leveson reforms, and some of them have been deeply involved in the Hacked Off Campaign. However, their current electoral strategy is focused on winning over former Conservative voters in blue wall constituencies, so I suspect that they will likewise be unwilling to fully embrace Cathcart’s and Howse's proposals for media reform. They have moreover done nothing to expose Keir Starmer’s grossly illiberal behaviour; indeed their internal discussion platforms heavily censor discussion of the veracity of claims about "antisemitism" in the Labour Party.

In brief, the Lib Dems' electoral strategy is very risk-averse; it involves harvesting popular dissatisfaction with Tories while “not scaring the horses” or risk giving tendentious journalists material they might use against them.

The publisher’s role

The above begs questions of Byline Times, a newspaper that as noted above, tells us it says “what the mainstream papers don’t say”, and follows the story wherever it goes, “without fear or favour”.

A series of articles it published around the December 2019 election and during 2020 implied that the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn had a serious problem with antisemitism, and that Keir Starmer was right to root it out. This article criticises Unite for opposing the Panorama payout. However, in common with so many pieces in the mainstream media, there was an absence of hard evidence behind these assertions

As a keen subscriber to Byline Times, this concerned me, and I therefore wrote to the founder and Editor, Peter Jukes, asking him to consider evidence, including statistics, that contradicted the newspaper’s thesis. Unfortunately, he was unwilling to do this, but said that while the Labour Party was much less racist than the Conservative Party that he couldn’t exempt it from criticism, particularly in the “pejorative” use of term Zionist.

More recently however, Byline Times has started giving vent to other perspectives on the Labour Party, publishing one piece that is critical of the authoritarian and factional behaviour of the Labour leadership, and an article where Richard Sanders, the producer of the Labour Files documentary, exposes deep flaws in the Panorama documentary. This is good, but the newspaper has yet to engage with copious evidence that the thesis of rampant Labour antisemitism is untruthful.

Where does this leave us?

We at CAMPAIN applaud Brian Cathcart and Patrick Howse for prioritising root-and-branch reform of our mainstream news media, but do not foresee opposition parties rising vigorously to the challenge. Bringing about such change will require sustained grass-roots pressure and discussion these parties ultimately cannot ignore.

Moreover, if we are to achieve media reform, we need to hold the opposition parties fully to account; we also need to talk about the pro-Israeli/Zionist elephant-in-the-room, much as the investigative journalist Nick Davies did on pages 122-125 of his ground-breaking critique of the mainstream media, Flat Earth News. As the French would put it, “c’est un sujet incontournable” – an unavoidable subject. I hope Byline Times is listening.

The author of this blog is Jonathan Coulter, Secretary of CAMPAIN. See here for short bio.


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